The Gift Church; a Soccer Star's "Mea Culpa"

Church of St. Theodore Takes on New Life

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 8, 2004 ( The visit of Constantinople’s Patriarch Bartholomew I fueled Rome news reports all week. Yet amid all the attention, one piece of information precious to art lovers shimmered in the background.

The restoration of the Church of St. Theodore (San Teodoro) had been completed and the church was to be given for use by the Greek Orthodox community.

According to tradition, the Church of St. Theodore was built in the sixth century on the ruined granaries of Agrippa at the foot of the Palatine Hill. The Palatine had served as the imperial residence from the time of Emperor Augustus in the first century B.C. As of A.D. 500, Christian churches began to spring up around the hill: Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria Antiqua and St. Theodore.

All three of these churches were sponsored by the Byzantine emperor and two were dedicated to saints from the eastern part of the empire as a way to unify Roman Christians with the increasing number of Eastern Christians arriving in the city.

St. Theodore of Euchaita was a soldier in the province of Pontus (modern-day Turkey). Along with other Christians, he was ordered to sacrifice to the emperor and his gods. Theodore refused, and was tortured and imprisoned. He suffered martyrdom by burning in 305 and his relics were eventually brought to Constantinople where a church was dedicated to him. His head, however, is in Gaeta, Italy.

I went to visit the church this week and met the new rector, Father Gregorius Stergiou, who was kind enough to take me around to visit the complex.

St. Theodore is one of the very few churches in Rome built on a circular plan and some archaeologists think that it may have built on the site of a pagan temple. For most of the first churches in the city, the Christians favored the Latin cross shape. The use of the circle was generally reserved for churches dedicated to martyrs, such as in the church of St. Stephen.

The circular design is «centralized,» meaning that the focus is on the center of the church, which was a feature of many Byzantine churches, such as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but was not common in Rome.

Recent refurbishments restored the church’s pale aqua interior chosen by Carlo Fontana during the last major renovation in 1705. The color offers an intense luminosity that is enhanced by the decoration of the Greek Orthodox community. They used brilliant white and soft yellow mustard on the floors, while the furniture is all of a light wood.

I asked Father Stergiou whether any major changes had been made to the church. He said that only the iconostas (the partition which divides the sanctuary from the congregation), necessary for the Eastern liturgy, had been added. This, too, was constructed of gleaming white marble affixed with brightly painted icons on the lower panels.

Father Stergiou also pointed out that the whole screen was on hinges so it could swing open and reveal the altar constructed in 1700 by Fontana out of Numidian yellow marble and Sicilian jasper.

Above the altar rises the majestic sixth-century mosaic showing Jesus robed in purple — the color of emperors –flanked by saints Peter and Paul. They in turn are presenting St. Theodore on the right (slightly darker in complexion and wearing traveling robes) and St. Crescentino on the left (a fair skinned, blond saint from northern Italy). The message seems to be that of universal welcome in Rome.

The rector expressed his delight at the Holy Father’s gift of the church. «From 1950 we were in a very, very small church in Via Sardegna that held about 70 people,» he said. «The new church holds 150.»

«In antiquity, this area was known as Ripa Greca, the Greek Port, because the ships from Greece docked right at the end of the street,» observed Father Stergiou. «From various inscriptions and findings archaeologists have deduced that this must have been the Greek quarter of Rome.»

«We are happy to be back,» he said.

* * *

Totti’s Turn to the Madonna

With the European soccer championships, the imminent Olympic games and the Special Olympics held in Rome this year, the subject of sports is on everyone’s lips.

John Paul II, ever alert to possibilities of evangelization, has been quick to encourage athletes and sportsmen, receiving them in audience and supporting the Olympic truce.

These actions represent an ongoing commitment to the world of sports that the Pope, once an avid hiker and skier himself, highlighted during the Jubilee Year.

On Oct. 29, 2000, the Jubilee of Sports, the Holy Father met athletes in Rome’s Olympic Stadium, emphasizing the necessity of sports in developing values and likening the perseverance and effort of athletic training to the sacrifice and endurance asked of Christians. He referred to Jesus as «God’s true athlete … who for our sake confronted and defeated the ‘opponent’ Satan.»

Last week he reiterated these ideas in the papal message entitled «Sports and Culture: Two Vital Forces for Mutual Understanding, Culture and Development Among Countries,» written for the upcoming World Day of Tourism on Sept. 27.

In the message, the Holy Father reminded sportsmen of the role of sports in peace making through the qualities of «good team spirit, respectful attitudes … and humility to recognize one’s own limitations.»

This message proved timely.

Francesco Totti, beloved star of the Italian national team and captain of Rome’s soccer club, was disqualified for three days for spitting at another player during the first game of the European finals on June 14. The image, replayed over and over again on television, was a terrible blow for the young people who look upon Totti as a role model.

Upon his return to Rome, Totti offered his playing jersey and a note asking forgiveness to the Madonna of the Sanctuary of Divine Love just outside Rome.

The sanctuary of Divine Love plays an important part in Rome’s popular piety. The first church was built around a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin in 1750, and John Paul II inaugurated a new addition in 2000. Pius XII and the citizens of Rome credited the Madonna of Divine Love with having saved Rome during World War II. And in 2000, the sanctuary hosted World Youth Day.

Totti’s yellow and red shirt with the famous number 10 now hangs on the wall of votive offerings along with bicycles, helmets and, of course, the little silver hearts which are a traditional offering from those who have received special graces. Nearby hangs the blue jersey of the national team that Totti offered in thanksgiving after the European championships of 2000.

* * *

Feeling at Home on the Fourth

Visitors often ask me if I get nostalgic for the United States, especially around American holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Those are the moments when I feel least homesick, I think, as the American community in Rome enjoys an outpouring of invitations and events.

The American ambassador to Italy, Mel Sembler, threw a lavish party transforming the vast garden of the Villa Taverna into a Main Street of U.S. sounds, tastes and smells. A choral group serenaded the receiving line, a brass quintet played the U.S. national anthem and then a big-band orchestra took over.

Soft-serve ice cream, hamburgers and every flavor potato chip known to man was offered at stand after stand. Standing out against the informality of the fare was the exquisite elegance of the guests who were the elite of the American business world and Italian politics. Former Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, Alleanza Nationale leader Gianfranco Fini and high-ranking representatives from all the Italian military lent an impressive presence to the proceedings.

The party I enjoyed the most, ho
wever, was thrown by the American ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson. Arriving up on the Janiculum Hill, the music was already audible outside the premises. From their first party when they arrived in 2001, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson remind us that being American means being openly proud of it. A giant red, white and blue tent stretched over the yard, the scent of barbecue and the vision of Mrs. Nicholson wearing the stars and stripes over her shoulder was just what we ex-pats needed to see in 2001.

Still today, the music is loud, the party runs late, and the Nicholsons hand out souvenirs as reminders of who we are. This year’s was a flag bookmark, the Holy See/U.S. flag pin and a booklet on the Constitution.

The distinguishing characteristic of Ambassador Nicholson’s party was the diversity of guests present. Prelates such as Cardinals Edmund Szoka, Renato Martino and Francesco Pompedda mingle easily with students, professors, seminarians and long-term Rome residents. It is a wonderful climate for building bridges, burying hatchets and generally promoting peace. And the reason why I never miss home on July Fourth.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at

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